Lonnie Liston Smith

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Before becoming a bandleader, pianist/organist/composer Lonnie Liston Smith made essential contributions to important recordings by Roland Kirk, Pharoah Sanders, Gato Barbieri, and Miles Davis. After founding the Cosmic Echoes, he issued six influential electric albums for Flying Dutchman between 1973 and 1977 — including Astral Traveling and Visions of a New World — that established him as a jazz-funk innovator. Between 1978 and 1980, his four Columbia outings — including Exotic Mysteries and Love Is the Answer — consciously stitched together funk, disco, and smooth jazz. After a spiritual awakening, Smith spent the next two decades recording for Dr. Jazz and Startrak Records, through 1998′s Transformation. Following that, he turned to session work for 25 years. He started recording under his own name again with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge on 2023′s Lonnie Liston Smith JID017.
The acoustic pianist/electric keyboardist was born in Richmond, Virginia on December 28, 1940. His father was a member of Richmond Gospel music group the Harmonizing Four and gospel was a key early influence; other high-profile groups such as the Swan Silvertones and the Soul Stirrers (featuring a young Sam Cooke) were regular visitors to his home as a child. Smith caught the music bug on and began his training early. In high school, he not only studied piano, but tuba and trumpet. As a teen, he established himself locally as a backing vocalist (his father taught him to sing gospel harmony) and pianist in the Baltimore metropolitan area. He attended Morgan State University and received a Bachelor of Science degree in music education. During this period, he regularly performed with a number of contemporaries, including Gary Bartz, Grachan Moncur, and Mickey Bass. Shortly after earning his degree, Smith got work as pianist in the house band at the city’s Royal Theater.
In 1963, Smith left Baltimore for New York City. He won the piano gig in Betty Carter’s band and stayed for a year. He auditioned for Roland Kirk’s band in 1965 and made his recording debut with the multi-instrumentalist, alternating with pianist Jacki Byard on Here Comes the Whistleman.1967′s Now Don't You Cry Beautiful Edith showcased him as the group’s sole pianist. Late that year he briefly joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, sharing duties with Keith Jarrett and English pianist Mike Nock. He left in 1966 after a three-night stand at the Five Spot. His replacement? Chick Corea. Smith spent the remainder of 1967 with Max Roach’s live quartet.
In early 1968, Smith joined saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’ band. Sanders’ mentor John Coltrane had died the previous year and the saxophonist was in the process of establishing himself as a leader. The first of the three recordings he made with Sanders was 1969′s Karma. Produced by Bob Thiele, the set offered only two extended tunes, including “The Creator Has a Master Plan” with vocals by Leon Thomas. That same year, Smith played on the singer’s Flying Dutchman debut, Spirits Known and Unknown. Smith, who had begun his tenure with Gato Barbieri by this time, had played on 1970′s The Third World. During this period he remained with Sanders in the studio and on the road. He played on three more important albums by the saxophonist: Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyun), Jewels of Thought (both 1970), and Thembi (1971). The pianist also played on his Izipho Zam, recorded in 1970 and released by Strata East in 1973.
Smith worked with Barbieri from 1969 to 1975. He appeared with the saxophonist on 1971′s Fenix, 1972′s live El Pampero, and 1973′s Under Fire and Bolivia. In early 1972, Miles Davis came calling. He’d assembled several lineups, with sometimes exotic instrumentation. He urged Smith to learn to play the organ in two days for the sessions that resulted in On the Corner.
Smith was still in Davis’ employ when he signed with producer Thiele’s RCA-distributed Flying Dutchman to record his debut leader album. Astral Traveling, credited to Lonnie Liston Smith & the Cosmic Echoes. The title track was actually composed in the studio with Sanders for the sessions that netted Thembi. During those recording sessions, Smith spotted a Fender Rhodes piano for the first time. After messing around on it for a while, he produced a drifting, spacy melody and progression that Sanders enthusiastically asked him to complete. They recorded it. Astral Traveling was major step forward for Smith. Modal and world music explorers like Coltrane, Sanders, Kirk, Yusef Lateef, McCoy Tyner, and Charles Lloyd were all influenced by his spiritually resonant composing. That said, neither Smith nor his Cosmic Echoes were jazz purists. Their instrumental fusion combined post-bop and modal as well as various world folk traditions. The first edition of the Cosmic Echoes included George Barron (soprano and tenor sax), Joe Beck (guitar), Cecil McBee (bass), David Lee, Jr. (drums), James Mtume (percussion), Sonny Morgan (percussion), Badal Roy (tabla drums), and Geeta Vashi (tamboura). Astral Traveling was entirely instrumental and easily the most vanguard of Smith’s early dates. While it didn’t chart, it did garner abundant positive notice from the jazz press in Europe and Asia.
It wasn’t long before Smith added a vocalist to the Cosmic Echoes. After all, vocal music — gospel and R&B — had been a huge part of his upbringing. Lonnie’s brother Donald Smith had helped him put together the Cosmic Echoes’ first lineup and was enlisted to sing on 1974′s Thiele-produced Cosmic Funk, the first Cosmic Echoes album to feature vocals. Lonnie Liston Smith & the Cosmic Echoes’ albums were about 80-percent instrumental, but the vocal offerings were always focal points. Subsequent titles including 1975′s Expansions and Visions of a New World, 1976′s Reflections of a Golden Dream, and 1977′s Renaissance — all charted inside the Top 200. The band naturally endured personnel changes. When they recorded Live! for RCA in 1977 (it peaked at number 55), the lineup included Smith, Donald on vocals, Dave Hubbard on tenor and soprano sax, Al Anderson on electric bass, Ronald Miller on electric guitar, and Hollywood Barker on drums.
In 1978 Smith broke up the Cosmic Echoes and signed to Columbia. Loveland was billed to Smith, though several Cosmic Echoes appeared on the album. Anderson alternated the bass duties with Smith’s young discovery, Marcus Miller. Loveland peaked inside the Top 40 on the R&B charts and at number 120 on the Top 200. A respectable seller, it fared well among fusion, crossover, and quiet storm fans, and not so well among purist jazz critics who were snobbishly confused about the music Smith was making. His next offering, Exotic Mysteries, also appeared in 1978. Its single, the Miller-composed “Space Princess,” featured a fine vocal from Donald that propelled it into the Hot 100. Although Exotic Mysteries was primarily an instrumental album, “Space Princess” was funky disco that possessed the mystic Cosmic Echoes vibe. Jazz critics and most purist fans turned on Smith during his Columbia period, claiming he’d “sold out” to make commercial music. Smith, a lifelong fan of R&B, soul, and dance music, as well as jazz, pursued the integration of these styles as a natural expansion of his jazz composing.
Donald Smith left after Exotic Mysteries. He was replaced on 1979′s criminally underrated Song for the Children by singer James "Crab" Robinson. The set spent eight weeks on the chart, peaking at 57 on Top R&B Albums. Love Is the Answer followed in 1980. With Robinson once again on vocals, Smith’s studio band also included guitarist Abdul Wali, bassist Pee Wee Ford, drummer Lino Reyes, and percussionist Lawrence Killian. The set peaked at 51 on the Top R&B albums list.
In 1980, Smith was part of the band that backed Marvin Gaye at his Montreux Jazz Festival debut and drew notice for his playing from European critics. The set was finally released in separate audio and video packages in 2003 by Eagle Vision. Smith had a spiritual awakening and undertook vegetarianism, meditation, and discipleship with guru Sri Chinmoy.
Brother Donald returned to the fold in the early ’80s, and Lonnie left Columbia to reunite with Thiele at the producer’s newly formed Doctor Jazz label. His debut, 1983′s Dreams of Tomorrow, was produced by Miller — who played synth in addition to bass on the outing; Smith played only pianos. The leader wrote half of its eight songs and another with Chinmoy; Miller composed the rest. The set’s single, “Never Too Late,” was a quiet storm vocal number written by Miller. It became a minor hit and helped propel the album into the R&B Top 50, and the general Top 200. Silhouettes followed in 1984. The eight-track set was ostensibly a “smooth” or contemporary jazz offering; nonetheless it landed inside the Top 40 on the Traditional Jazz Albums chart. 1985′s all-instrumental Rejuvenation, a set of mostly originals, melded modal and contemporary jazz, Latin grooves, and the straight-ahead “A Frozen Lake.” It peaked at 40 on Traditional Jazz Albums. Smith’s final Dr. Jazz outing was 1987′s excellent standards collection, Make Someone Happy, his first-ever solo date to feature only the acoustic piano.
Smith, a restless musician, went right back to making hybrid records with 1990′s Love Goddess for Startrak Records. Recorded at various studios in Maryland, his invited guests included vocalists Jean Carne and Phyllis Hyman, bassist James Jamerson, Jr., saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., and bassist Lonnie Plaxico among many others. Most of the set was produced or co-produced by Norman Connors. It peaked at number ten on the Contemporary Jazz Albums chart where it spent 23 weeks. He returned in 1991 with Magic Lady, a further excursion into adult contemporary R&B and funk, it spent 15 weeks on the R&B charts, peaking at number 75.
In 1993, Smith appeared on rapper Guru’s groundbreaking, revolutionary Jazzmataz, Vol. 1, as well as on Digable Planets’ Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. Jazzwise, he joined Shakatak as a guest on 1993′s Full Circle.
He returned to a Cosmic Echoes-minded approach in 1998, when he and Donald reunited for Transformation (released by Smith’s own Loveland Records). Given the lack of promotion or worldwide distribution, it didn’t chart, but is regarded by many as one of his finest contemporary jazz/R&B fusions due to its relaxed vibe, vast array of rhythms, and of course, erudite playing. It was his last album for 25 years.
Smith’s music continues to fascinate younger artists who mine his work for inspiration. Both Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z scored hits with samples from Smith’s recording “A Garden of Peace.” In 2002, Sony’s reissue-oriented Legacy Recordings looked back on the late-’70s and early-’80s output with the double-disc retrospective titled Explorations: The Columbia Years. Smith stayed active with live appearances including a spot at Glastonbury in 2009, and in Virginia at the Norfolk Waterfront Jazz Festival in 2017. Throughout the first two decades in the 21st century, titles in Smith’s catalog — particularly those on the Flying Dutchman label — saw several reissues.
In February 2020, Smith headlined Jazz Is Dead’s Black History Month series in L.A. jamming with label bosses Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge and several local luminaries. Two years later, Smith returned to Jazz Is Dead’s studio. He wrote and recorded with Younge and Muhammad, vocalist Loren Oden, and alternating drummers Greg Paul and Malachi Morehead. The completed session, titled Lonnie Liston Smith JID017, was released in April 2023. ~ Thom Jurek